Pancreatitis is a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed, causing severe abdominal pain. It is often triggered by alcohol consumption which causes digestive enzymes to digest part of the pancreas.
Scientists have known for some time that coffee can reduce the risk of alcoholic pancreatitis, but have been unable to determine how. Researchers at the University have now discovered that caffeine can partially close special channels within cells, reducing to some extent the damaging effects of alcohol products on the pancreas.
Professor Ole Petersen and Professor Robert Sutton, from the University's Physiological Laboratory and Division of Surgery, have found that cells in the pancreas can be damaged by products of alcohol and fat formed in the pancreas when oxygen levels in the organ are low. Under these conditions, excessive amounts of calcium are released from stores within the cells of the pancreas. Special organelles, called mitochondria, also become damaged and cannot produce the energiser that normally allows calcium to be pumped out of the cells. The excess calcium then activates protein breakdown, destroying the cells in the pancreas.
Professor Petersen explains: "The primary cause of the build up in calcium ion concentration is movement of calcium ions from a store inside the cells into the cell water through special channels in the store membrane. We have found that caffeine, present in drinks such as coffee can at least partially close these channels. This explains why coffee consumption can reduce the risk of alcoholic pancreatitis. The caffeine effect, however, is weak and excessive coffee intake has its own dangers, so we have to search for better agents.
"At the moment there is no specific pharmacological treatment for pancreatitis. As a result of this research however, we can, for the first time, begin to search for specific chemical agents that target the channels causing the excessive liberation of calcium ions inside the cells, which is where the problem originates. We are also hoping that these findings can be used to warn against the dangers of binge drinking. Some of the effects of the non-oxidative alcohol products on isolated pancreatic cells cannot be reversed, explaining why excess alcohol intake can be so dangerous."
The research by Professor Petersen and Professor Sutton, which is supported by the Medical Research Council, is published in TRENDS in Pharmacological Sciences and Gastroenterology.
Notes to editors
1. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £90 million annually.